Humans are but stories. Through different religions, we have been conveying the same messages – the same stories. Some characters would be changed, the environment varied; yet the stories remained.
Part I: Leaving Berlin
If you’re a bookworm like me, you must be familiar with many stories. Love, friendship, crime, adventure. Or even if you’re not so fond of reading, you must have come across stories. Be it in the aforementioned religions, or even in life, we hear about and go through stories of our own.
What a strange feeling it is when you become a story yourself. Usually, we go through life, face our challenges, have our experiences and some people around us. At one point, you might come to realize that the present – the now – is a story. You suddenly become aware that your next few choices and your latest memories will turn into a story. At this moment, you become a writer.
Decades later, those stories will stay with you, and the best ones you’ll share with the friends from your youth during a high school reunion, or maybe with your children. If you’re like me, you’ll hope that your story will reach more ears and eyes than those in your immediate environment. Who knows, perhaps you’ll decide to write an article, even a whole book about your story?
My story started at 4.30 a.m. Okay, in fact, it began way earlier, almost twenty years ago (what a shiver does this thought send through my spine), but the one I wish to tell you right now started at exactly 4.30 a.m., the first time I clicked the ‘snooze’ button on that Monday morning.
Two more clicks and it was already fifteen past five. Gradually, it was getting bright outside, hence it was time to leave the cosiness of my bed and get ready for the journey; to get ready for my story.
My rucksack was packed, my head was full of excitement (which somehow covered all the concerns). Besides, my parents were worried about me anyway. What good would it bring if I worried for myself too?
A bus, then a tram, and I found myself on the outskirts of Berlin. With two cardboard banners in my hands, a backpack, and a camera, I managed to cross the busy morning streets in the suburbia of Germany’s capital. One jump over the short fence and I was on the road.
Oh, on the road. I like this expression. My spontaneous decision to go out and travel was mainly inspired by Jack Kerouac. His life – and his works – would always come back to me, as I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Beat Generation and the Dharma Bums. With hardly any experience (none, in fact), I packed my things and decided to hitchhike to Bodensee and back to Berlin. To give you an idea, the distance I had to cover was roughly 800 kilometres (500 miles), which would take around 8 hours by car.
A happy idiot, I was walking along the Autobahn, waiting for my first ride. The plan was to get to Leipzig, then Nuremberg, Munich, and Bodensee. Having heard stories from my father’s youth, I knew that the lake Bodensee was beautiful, as was the area surrounding it. But I’ve had enough stories, I want to have one of my own! Take it down with my own footsteps; not just hear about that exquisiteness, but experience it on my own skin.
Hardly a few minutes passed when I saw my first ride – with the siren on. I stopped at once, smiling, waiting for the inevitable.
“Du kannst hier nicht gehen,” said the police officer after leaving the car. He then started telling me off, and that’s when my command of German ceased to be useful.
“Sorry?” I was looking at him in bewilderment, waiting for an explanation in English. There wasn’t a shadow of a doubt that 90% from my majors in German wasn’t enough to communicate with the natives, at least not that police officer.
“You cannot walk here!” The officer approached me, talking in a patronizing way. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Poland,” I replied. “Well, where can I get off?” I had to figure something out off the cuff. Wasn’t that how hitchhiking works? Walking along the street with your thumb and a cardboard banner up? That’s how Kerouac described it, and that’s how it was in the movies. But hey, it wasn’t the sixties – it’s 2020.
“No, no, no,” he shook his head. “You’re coming with us.”
Without much ado, I sat on the backseat of the car and chatted with the two officers. They’d ask me some more questions and told me that it’s forbidden to be on the highway. They smiled when I mentioned Bodensee.
The officers dropped me off at the closest petrol station and told me where I could and couldn’t stand. So that’s how I got my first ride. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for free, which seemed against the idea of hitchhiking. I had to pay a €10 fine. Not too bad, and cheaper than a taxi, but still – it hurt.
Looking for the sweet spot near the entrance to the highway to Leipzig, I walked around and changed the places where I stood. Goofing around and smiling at each driver, I felt happy. Most of them wouldn’t give me a ride, yet I knew that I made their day jumping around with my banners, dancing, cheering.
Time flies when you’re having fun. Some three hours later, a guy came near to me. I smiled and said hey.
“Hi, I’ve seen you here like an hour ago,” he said.
“Yeah, I’ve been here for a while,” I replied.
“Listen, I’m not going to Leipzig, but I can drop you off to a parking lot near the highway. Maybe you’ll have more luck there.”
“Brilliant!” After a shadow of the thought of giving up, high hopes filled my mind again. In his car, we chatted for a bit. Hie offered that he’d get me back to Berlin if I got stuck on that parking lot. That was a fine plan B for me. We exchanged numbers and had our good-byes.
From that point on, the journey went quite smoothly. Not a quarter passed, when I got my third ride. The driver was with his daughter, they were on a road trip, getting to their next stop after visiting Berlin.
“Oh, you’re a smoker,” he said, opening his car window.
“Sorry,” I mumbled and started a conversation. Another quarter later I got off, thanking them for the ride, and wishing I had prepared gifts for my drivers beforehand. I made a note to myself to do so for my next journeys – create some kind of a souvenir, a gift of gratitude for the drivers’ sincerity.
A Lucky Bastard
On the other side of the road, I could see my next goal – yet another parking lot for resting drivers. Sure, I am crazy, but I wanted to make it to Bodensee in one piece, hence I gave up on the idea of running across the highway. Walking over a nearby viaduct seemed like a more reasonable idea.
This time, I decided to take the initiative instead of waiting for luck. I approached drivers asking them if they were travelling south and could give me a lift. Many people declined my offer, but I couldn’t be put down. It was around 10 a.m.
Couples, businesspeople, long-haired hippies – they either weren’t going to any of my destinations or didn’t have enough room for me. When a van with military-clad men arrived, I took my chance.
“Hey, are you going to Munich and could give me a lift?”
“We are going to Munich,” said the crew-cut man, “but we can’t take any civilians.”
I tried to come up with a clever joke, maybe give him a salute, but thinking about all the ways that man could break my bones, I gave up on this idea. I wished him a good day and walked away.
Standing there, seeing yet another opportunity passing right in front of my face, doubt appeared again. It’s been four hours already, and I’d barely left Berlin. As it turned out, I’m a lucky bastard.
“Where are you going?” I heard a voice and turned around. A smile appeared on my face.
“Leipzig,” I said, raising my banner high. The man shook his head. I turned the banner around. “Nuremberg?” I asked, but he wasn’t going to Nuremberg that day. “What about Munich or Bodensee?”
“Look,” he said. “I’m going to Stuttgart, so I can drop you off on the highway near Nuremberg or Munich.”
“Stuttgart,” I said. “Perfect, that’s exactly where I’m going.”
Part II: Bodensee
Stuttgart was about 2 hours from Bodensee. Once I’d get there, I would be just one ride away from my destination – if I was lucky. Still, getting to Stuttgart did take time. Hence, I spent the next 4,5 hours with my third driver.
Chatting and laughing, from work to hitchhiking, we ended up talking about masks. Briefly, I presented my stance on this issue, saying that helpful as they might be in preventing COVID-19, I don’t think they should be legislated.
“Of course not,” he said. “It’s hypocrisy, you know.” He was even more opposed to the legislation of masks than I was. “If I have sex with a girl, Angela Merkel is not standing behind me, telling me to wear a condom so that I don’t get AIDS!”
That’s an interesting point, I thought. Driving for over four hours can be tiresome, and sooner or later one will run out of subjects to discuss. We talked about how beautiful it was in Bavaria and how terrible the southern German accent was. My driver told me how often accents change in Germany, which reminded me of my stay in Huddersfield during summer 2019. Back then, it took me two weeks and tonnes of self-doubt to understand the West Yorkshire accent, whose reminiscence stayed with me till this day.
The driver said he was going Stuttgart to take a look at some issue with car production lane, which the company he worked for manufactured. He said that it would take some 1,5 minutes to assemble and S Class Mercedes, so every second counted for their customers; every minute cost them money. He also told me that there are many systems involved in car lane assembly, and he knew from experience that the problem usually wasn’t their fault. Normally, he wouldn’t have to go to Stuttgart from Berlin, where he lived, but because of the pandemic lay-offs, he had no choice.
At the end of my ride with him, I almost fell asleep. My back hurting from hours spent in strangers’ cars, my eyes were almost closing. The prospect of another ride coming real soon got me energized again, deriving stamina from the depths of my body.
Before we parted, he said that he would be coming back to Berlin on Friday, in five days, and he could take me back if I wanted to. Again, we exchanged numbers, wished each other luck, and said our good-byes. It was dinner time for me, so before I started looking for a ride, I grabbed a cheeseburger at the iconic fast-food burger & fries chain (as Google has it), McDonald’s. With my belly full and my hopes high, I started to ask around for a ride again.
Walt Disney once said that “the difference between winning or losing is most often not quitting.” I believe it’s an important thing to have in mind when hitchhiking. You have to truly believe that somebody will eventually pick you up. Come on, you just need one ride, man, I told myself. You’re so close now, you can make it! Without any company, I had to be my own motivational coach, and I did a pretty good job at it.
I approached everybody with a smile, asking about Bodensee. Most of the smiles were reciprocated, even if I didn’t get a ride, and that reciprocation gave me more hope. On the road, assume sincerity. Smile, and it shall be reciprocated. Imagine the good things, they’re most likely to happen. Wait for three hours, and you’ll ride for eight. Other humans derive happiness from helping – don’t be ashamed to accept this help. Also, ask for help. Some of them might not know that they want to give it to you. It’s the most reciprocal of relations.
A group of three people were smiling at me, and I couldn’t but ask them if they were going to Bodensee.
“Well, we don’t know,” said the lady in the middle. “Let me check.” She swiped and clicked on her phone, examining the maps app. “No,” she said after a while. “We’re not going to Bodensee, unfortunately.” They all wished me good luck, and you bet – I was a lucky bastard.
A newly arrived couple were looking at me. I approached them without hesitation. “Hey, are you perhaps going to Bodensee?”
“Actually, we are,” they said. I was ecstatic.
“That’s great, could you give me a lift?”
“Sure, where exactly are you going?”
“Wherever, I just want to get to Bodensee.” It’s a big lake at the border of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, with lots of small towns around it. The lake was my destination, anywhere near it was fine with me.
“We’ll just eat something and we can go,” they said.
“Alright, I’ll wait here.”
Sat on a bench, I took a few of my thoughts down in my travel journal. I use my copy of Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” for this purpose. Filling the empty spaces above and below the text, it’s my handy diary during my travels. I’ve only used it once before, when I travelled to Hamburg some month earlier. This book first came into my hands in Holmfirth in 2019, when I bought it in a local bookshop.
A year before my hitchhiking adventure, I went for a Eurotrip with two of my friends. Together, we visited London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Madrid. I remember reading it while waiting for our trains and planes in the capital cities of Europe. It was back then when I decided that “The Dharma Bums” would accompany me during my journeys into the unknown – it had its vibe.
Should you not be familiar with “The Dharma Bums,” let me tell you a bit about this story without spoiling too much. In his novel, Kerouac writes about a group of Buddhist Americans who travel around the US, climb mountains, and meditate. In eastern religions, dharma can be translated to destiny, but it means much more than that. Dharma is the search for yourself, dharma is the roads of your life, dharma is the steering wheel of your existence’s vessel.
Travelling, I’m the only one in control of my path, however crazy they might be. Let me tell you – there comes a feeling of satisfaction when you undoubtedly prove your craziness to yourself.
But a few minutes passed and I was on the backseat of my last drivers that day. “I gotta be honest, you guys are fast-eaters.”
“Oh, we decided not to eat here. My boyfriend has skin problems after eating junk food.”
As strange as this ice-breaking small talk may seem, we bonded pretty quickly. They were just a couple of years older than me, hence there was a lot to talk about. From national stereotypes, through alternative medicine, to the difficulty of the German language. Hours passed in no time.
After almost 12 hours and around 830 kilometres (515 miles), I could see the mighty lake from the car’s window. Indeed, it was exquisite. The vineyards and apple farms surrounding it only added to its mesmerizing beauty. There I was – Friedrichshafen – and I felt content. Spontaneity is the traveller’s greatest ally, and it proved itself useful time and time again that day.
This time around, instead of phone numbers (how crude and antediluvian!), we followed each other on Instagram. Modern problems require modern solutions.
Doing crazy things makes you prepared for the dull challenges of normal life, and that includes its dullness. With a bandana on my head, I felt like a hippie. Well, almost.
On the one hand, I had the carefreeness of hippies. I often rested sitting on my cardboard banners, hitchhiking around the country, all with that stupid bandana. Yet, on the other hand, I had something that no hippie ever had – technology.
In my backpack, there was my only working tool – my laptop. Along with two chargers, an ebook reader, and headphones, my rucksack was stuffed with technological nuances that no hobo could ever dream of. Throughout the day, I checked my location with the help of GPS. Couchsurfing had my back in terms of accommodation. Last but not least, there was my phone. Honestly, as hip as I tried to be, I wouldn’t have left my rented room without my phone – I can barely imagine that.
Again, modern problems…
Having left the car, I rushed to the closest free beach. On my way there, I passed by a guarded beach – one with a pool, clean toilets, and family-friendly sunbeds. No way I’m gonna pay for this shit, I thought and marched along.
And rightly so! A five-minute walk and I found myself on the beach, wetting my feet in the crystal clear water, watching the beautiful Swiss mountains on the other side of Bodensee, waiting for the Sun to set.
It was my moment of relaxation after the day’s adventures. One thing was still missing, though. I had to find a place to sleep. My phone was about to die, so I could take no risks. Packing my stuff back into the backpack, I started looking for a place to plug my little rectangle in and grab a beer – two birds with one stone.
With a broad smile on my face, unconcerned, I got to Graf Zeppelin pub. At the bar, some eight or nine Germans were sitting, gambling and inviting me to come in.
Waiting for my phone to charge up, I cherished the moment with Weissbier filling a couple notes in my journals. Once I got that over with, I grabbed my laptop and wrote. A whole day without the feeling of the keyboard under my fingers manifested itself by itching my brain on the inside. In Graf Zeppelin, I finished writing “Crimson,” a short story based on my original script. What a day it was.
When I left Graf Zeppelin, it was already dark outside. Having no place to sleep, I put my last hope into Couchsurfing. Waiting for a reply to one of the 25 requests I’d sent, I started to think about a plan B. Coming back to Berlin was a no-go. Where could I spend the night? The beach, the forest? Maybe under a cosy viaduct nearby?
Oh wait, I totally forgot – I’m a lucky bastard. A Couchsurfing host reached out to me, saving me from temporary homelessness. His place was in Immenstaad, a 45-minute walk away from where I stood. Without too much time to waste, I started walking.
Imagine: You’ve hitchhiked through entire Germany with perfect strangers, without any plan whatsoever, and you’re afraid of darkness. Well, I was. On my phone, I played “Notes on a Conditional Form” to distract me from the wrong-doers and monsters hiding in the dark. Of course, I didn’t use my headphones – I had to stay alert in case I had to fight for my life.
That darkness did have its merits, though. Devoid of light pollution, I was able to gaze at the stars above me. Oh, were they beautiful. Kinda scary, but beautiful.
Part III: Zurich
Having recharged my own batteries, I was ready to explore the area the next day – starting with a swim in the chilly waters of Bodensee. Parks, beaches, and nearby towns. There was only me, myself, and I. Travelling alone is indeed finding yourself. Or if not finding, at least seeking.
During that day, I put a few notes in my journal. A note to future self – Hitchhiking Travel Tips – included:
- Drink water as often as you can;
- Pee as often as you can;
- Don’t ever pay for toilets;
- Don’t walk along highways (or else pay a fine).
Short, sweet, and practical. If you ever plan to go on a hitchhiking journey, keep those in mind. Stay hydrated and don’t go too harsh on your bladder. Don’t pay for toilets, there’s always a way to pee for free.
Speaking of peeing, why the hell would you pay for that? Sure, it’s a relief, but not a pleasure! Find a tree or two, do what you gotta do, and keep going.
Lastly, don’t walk along highways. Above all, drivers aren’t allowed to stop there, so they can’t even pick you up. Instead, go for parking lots and petrol stations. Yet, waving around with banners may turn out to be inefficient. As I mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A quick “Hey, are you going to [blank] and could perhaps give me a lift?” can do wonders.
There’s one more thing that struck me during my hitchhiking trip. I can imagine that I might be prejudiced in this particular area. Some people couldn’t believe that I made it Bodensee. “How did you do that?” they asked.
“You know, I just smile and ask for a lift, and the driver thinks: Well, he’s young, well-dressed, as smells pretty good too. He looks quite decent, though that pseudo-moustache kinda ruins it. And they just take me.”
Apart from that, I can be quite extroverted and reach out to people easily. Another factor is that I’m a man, and I reckon that making such a bold decision would be quite troublesome (but not impossible!) for girls.
All of the mentioned features of character and appearance aren’t totally dependent on me (maybe excluding that moustache, but I promise I won’t do that again). Ipso facto, I’m not going to apologize for these advantages. I do acknowledge them, but I’m not sorry.
I’m not going be sorry for being white, male, and coming from a decent family in Europe. I’m just a lucky bastard. Unless you’re an abominable crook, don’t be sorry for who you are. We’re all trying to figure it all out here, so whatever they tell you, just keep going.
On my way to Hagnau, a nearby village, I came across a group of Poles working at a vintage. They told me they’d been coming to work at the Bodensee for generations, that it was some kind of a tradition. Next summer, I thought, I’m gonna do something like that.
Taking pictures, reading, beholding the picturesque scenery – that’s how I spent that Tuesday. No way I’m going back to Berlin tomorrow. In my mind, I was already planning another trip. Surrounded by the breath-taking sites, I strolled around the place. I thought it was strange, looking at a mighty mountain, knowing you won’t climb it today.
Somehow the day passed and the Sun hid beyond the horizon again. Back at my host’s place, I prepared yet another cardboard banner. Zurich, it said.
Just before going to sleep, my host approached a little figure on his cupboard and put his hands together. Driven by genuine curiosity, I asked him what he was doing.
“I’m praying to female Buddha,” he said, showing me the statue. “Every day, I pray for my family – so that they’re fine whatever struggle they come across – and for myself. It’s important to send my thoughts to my people of kin in Vietnam, that’s the best way I can help them. I also pray for myself – it’s just as important.”
Before nodding off, we chatted about Buddhism, drugs, and the meaning of life. He told me about what he called the ‘20s syndrome.’ He described it as the internal struggle people go through in their 20s – the search for their own identity and the challenges of real life, having been torn away from their parents’ caregiving arms. I couldn’t agree more, but I also couldn’t get too involved in the conversation, as my eyelids were getting heavier and heavier.
Just before I left the next morning, I took a moment to pray to the female Buddha: first for my family, then for myself. To be honest, I didn’t believe it would change anything. Actually, I’m quite sceptical in such matters. Still, I did it, and I don’t know why. It was a whim, a coincidence. Later that day, I was to realize that some coincidences happen for a reason.
Around 6 a.m., when it started to get bright outside, I was back on the road, heading for the closest petrol station. A morning coffee, a smile on my face, and I got a ride within a quarter.
My driver didn’t speak English too well, if at all, and I was forced to use my brain cells and keep up a chat in German. Much to my own surprise, it went quite smoothly. Some 45 minutes later I passed the German-Swiss border in Schaffhausen.
Wait, did I mention that I’m a lucky bastard? Two hours and two drivers later I arrived at Zurich. Aware of the outrageous prices for phonecalls in Switzerland, I quickly headed to the traveller’s retreat – a fine establishment with food, drinks, comfortable seats, free internet connection, and free toilets. The closest McDonald’s wasn’t too far away.
It was mind-boggling to think about it. Two days earlier, I was in my small rented room in Berlin. Off the cuff, I hitchhiked to Bodensee for 12 hours, only to find myself here in Zurich. From your point of view – the reader – I reckon it doesn’t sound as exciting, and I can fully understand it. In order to fully enjoy a story, you have to live it yourself. Once you become like the characters in novels, your life turns into a plot. Be it with words or simply with actions, you become a writer; the present is your pen (or your keyboard) for the stories of the future.
Following one of my drivers’ advice, I headed straight to Lake Zurich. Straight, then right. A couple of minutes of walking, and I found myself looking at the exquisiteness of nature.
I barely walked out of the city centre, and the gorgeous waters met my eyes. It was a windy day, which only magnified the beauty of that scenery.
On my way, I encountered a group of monks, dressed in robes, singing their mantra. One of them met my eyes. I smiled and showed them the hippie peace gesture, two fingers raised into the air. One of the monks stayed behind and talked with a couple on the sidewalk. I couldn’t but listen to what he had to say.
As it turned out, that day they were having a celebration of some sort. Dining, singing, chanting. Free food and a new experience, I thought. I’m in. It was to start in a few hours, so I had more than enough time to enjoy Zurich and see the city.
Shortly after, I’ve come across a Japanese garden – the perfect place for tourist. “No, no,” said the bodyguard once he saw me. “You can’t walk in with these,” he said, pointing at my banners.
Looking at him, I just stood there speechless. “Deutsch, Italiano, Française, English?” He asked.
“English, if you don’t mind,” I responded.
“You can’t take pictures with these,” he said, pointing at my banners again.
“Oh no, no, no,” I declined. “I’m a hitchhiker. Look, those say Leipzig, Nuremberg, Munich, and Bodensee. I got here per Anhalter.”
Whenever people see hitchhikers, some mysterious energy lights up within them. Naturally, we began to chat all friendly, and then I went in to take a couple pictures of the Japanese (or was it Chinese?) garden.
I’ve spent the next two hours roaming around the beautiful city of Zurich.
Oh boy, was it breathtaking. Even the simplest allies had something to them – the combination of Germany, Italy, and France – that was Zurich.
Having walked for a couple hours, I ended back in my headquarter’s – a McDonald’s restaurant. From there, my objective was clear. I need to get to those monks’ celebration.
As it turned out, they were part of a movement called Hare Krishna. To be honest, I’ve never heard of them, but something was driving me there. Their temple was next to Bergstrasse, and I knew a climb awaited me (Berg = mountain in German).
Have you ever seen Kung Fu Panda? If the answer’s ‘no,’ let me explain. In that animated film, the main character – Po – climbs the stairs for hours to get to the temple and start practising Kung Fu, or something like that. Well, that’s how I felt.
Finding the temple wasn’t easy. It took me an hour or so. Once I got there, I wasn’t too impressed. I expected an Eastern temple, with a dojo and monks singing around. Nothing like that was waiting for me. It was but a big, orange house, with a name on it: Hare Krishna Temple.
I ringed the bell and waited for somebody to let me in.
Part IV: Hare Krishna
A grey-haired man opened the door. “Hello,” he said. I smiled and replied with a ‘hey.’ “How did you find out about us?”
“Oh, I got that invitation today at the lake,” I said, showing him the little pamphlet I received from the monk at Lake Zurich.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “The celebration starts in an hour. You can wait in our garden,” he told me, showing me where I could rest.
“Great,” I replied. “Umm, can I smoke here?”
“No, but you can do it on the sidewalk.”
I left my backpack, banners, and the camera in the garden and stood on the sidewalk where I could appreciate the tobacco smoke in my lungs. I like cigarettes. They remind me that all pleasure is but momentary and bitter. They’re the perfect example that overindulgence leads to misery. Living the life I want to live, I like to keep that in mind, and remind myself of the tragedy of existence. Having done that, I got back to the garden and put a few notes in my journals.
Whoever crossed the gates of the temple smiled at me and bowed, as if I was a part of their cult. Women and men, young and old, entered the Hare Krishna Temple. Sitting in the garden, I saw a lady walking around the building. She did it once, then twice, and three times. All in all, she made five or six walk-arounds about the temple. Was it atonement, was it her own strange ritual? I’ve never learned.
The celebration was about to start in a few minutes, so I approached the front door of the temple. A little note on the door said: “Please ring.” So I rang – once, twice, three times. Another woman had just entered the premises of the temple, again smiling and bowing at me. I reciprocated the greeting. Pushing the door, she went inside. Alright then, I thought, and followed her into the temple.
Stepping into her footsteps, I left my banners in the hall and took my shoes and socks off. I turned around and saw a monk smiling at me. He was around twenty-five years of age, dressed in a white robe, with that weird hairstyle. His head was shaved apart from a circle at the top-back of his head, where the remaining hair was bound into a ponytail.
We chatted for a minute when another monk came down from upstairs. It was the same guy whom I’d met earlier that day, at Lake Zurich. As if we were old friends, we greeted each other. Indeed, like high school buddies, he introduced me into that world – the Hare Krishna temple.
“The celebration will start in twenty minutes,” he said, “but we’ve also prepared a vegetarian feast. Are you hungry?”
Of course I was hungry. We went downstairs, where he showed me around the kitchen. Having given me a metal plate, he put all kinds of Eastern dishes on it: something dry, something spicy; some vegetables and some fruit; as a dessert, sweet rice. “You need to try it,” he said. “It’s delicious.”
With a plate full of food, we went back to the garden. Sitting opposite each other, we started talking about the dogma of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and our background.
I told him that I was raised in a Christian family, but the more I learned about religion, the more I questioned it. Years of reading and contemplation led me to a pseudo-scientific/pseudo-religious conclusion: that all religions try to show you a way to be a good human being. This process opened my mind to unknown vocations and cults, trying to see humans as individuals, and not through the prism of their religion, or any other collective identity.
Another thing I believe, naive as it may sound, is that through development of the self we can truly change the world. The more I know about myself, the more I’m able to understand others. With that understanding playing on my mind, I’m able to help them. Ironically, I’m always one of the first to give people relationship advice (in fact, they often ask me for counsel). At the same time, I’ve got little to no practical experience. I’ve just read some books, watched a couple videos, and I’m always willing to share that theoretical knowledge with others. But life is more than just theory.
Experience will teach you the best theory. The monk didn’t intend to stay in the Hare Krishna temple forever, contrary to my presupposition. In fact, rarely do people stay monks for longer periods of time. My interlocutor told me that after the two-year period of praying to Krishna and getting a grip of his life, he then wants to go on, start a family, live in a house where he grows his own food and lives in accord with nature.
The vegetarian meal was more than fine. We went back to the basement, where I cleaned my own dishes. Upstairs, the ceremony was about to begin. I met some other monks, most of them were between 25 and 35 years old, give or take. We chatted about my hitchhiking adventures and their daily lifestyle: praying at 5 a.m., picking up food from a nearby organic farm, chanting and meditating.
I wanted to learn as much as I could. They told me about the Bhagavad Gita – their holy scripture. One of the monks was passionately describing to me how the Bhagavad Gita explains conception, the journey of souls, and basically all science. I was sceptical, even cynical at some point, but I listened. It was clear that he believed in it and was doing his best to convert me to their beliefs. Good luck with that.
The ceremony was mesmerizing. In a spacious room, about thirty people were kneeling or sitting on the ground. In the corner a guy was singing and playing the drums, and a lady next to him sang to a microphone and played a pump organ. All believers were facing a shiny altar. In the central point stood two small statues: male and female Krishna.
As it later turned out, that day’s celebration was the celebration of female Krishna – the female energy. That morning before leaving Immenstaad, I randomly prayed to female Buddha. Buddha, Krishna, Yahweh, Allah – they’re all the same to me. Now, I’m not being ignorant, but rather following my hypothesis that all religions talk about the same notions, entities, whatever.
To explain it more clearly, I always use the example of fiction. I’m a storyteller, which is one of the oldest vocations in the history of mankind. As we evolved, we based our society on stories, which explained to us how to construct our tribes or nations based on morality, empathy, and reciprocation. Humans resonate with stories more than with plain rules. Hard to believe? Ask yourself, how many quotes can you recall right now? You’ve seen thousands of them, and they’re not too long to remember, right? Still, you can probably just recall a handful of them. Now, how many stories can you recall? How many books, how many movies? I bet you know a lot of them.
Telling people to “be good to others no matter their ethnicity, religions, or nationality” sounds vague. Nobody will be inspired by a sentence. But tell them the story of the good Samaritan, and they’ll remember it – and hopefully apply its message – forever.
However, from the “be good…” foundation you can create a plethora of stories. The story of the good Samaritan is linked directly to Christianity, but couldn’t the same conclusions be drawn from the idea of karma, the teachings of the Buddha, or simple atheistic morality?
A more modern example: consumerism. You can say that we live in a society where people try to manifest their personality through material goods. Sounds a bit lofty, but what about it? On the contrary, if you watch the portrayal of consumerism in Fight Club – now that is something that people will remember. The same single-sentence message can be delivered in a myriad of stories. On the surface, they may seem unrelated to one another. Yet, on a deeper level, they convey the same timeless wisdom.
I imagine it as a tree scheme – the leaves, the fruit, and the flowers may look different, but they all stem from the same roots. It’s as if all religions conveyed the same universal messages, and only changed the characters and settings of the stories to match their immediate culture.
Hence, to me, the female Buddha and female Krishna symbolize the same energy. Anyway, spirituality and predestination aside, it’s an interesting coincidence, isn’t it?
At the ceremony, I sat in the corner, watched, and listened. One of the monks gave me a little book with the mantra so that I could chant too. I couldn’t but notice the similarities between the female Krishna ceremony and a Christian mass. People with similar values and beliefs gathered in an ornamented space, singing together, feeling the sense of belonging. In the end, they would stand in a queue to take part in an individual offering to Krishna – a custom that strangely resembled the act of Holy Communion.
The main idea behind the celebration was closely knit to the cult’s doctrine. They believe in the journey of souls, hence they restrain from eating meat (that also being the reason for their stark opposition to abortion). Nevertheless, plants are also some form of life. In order to compensate for the rice, tofu, and beans they eat, the true believers have to sacrifice some of their food to Krishna.
This sacrifice entails rubbing the vegetarian food into the statues of male and female Krishna. Then, the monks would pour milk and honey onto the statues to clean them up. The pulp would flow down into a metal cylinder, creating a sweet beverage (similar to the milk in which Cleopatra took baths), which we would then drink.
The entire temple was full of books, ornamental Eastern decorations, and paintings. I left my sweet corner to take a couple pictures and chat with the monks. They asked me if the book with the mantra was helpful. “Actually,” I said, “I know the mantra. I’ve heard it already. Do you know Krishna Das?”
“Oh yes, he’s a popular musician. He paid us a visit once.”
“Wow, that’s great,” I replied. “I sometimes meditate to his songs.”
“So, if you say you know it – what’s the mantra then?”
As you can imagine, the mantra fell out of my head as soon as they asked me the question. I had to hum the melody of Waltzing My Krishna to recall it. It goes like this:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Basically, those are different names of Krishna and, of course, it’s just one of many mantras. You can see the pattern, can’t you? There’s countless melodies you can use to chant this mantra.
After the ceremony, I had to ask them about the hairstyles. The only hair on their head was a ponytail at the top of their heads. Having read some Dan Brown in the past, it rang a bell.
“Alright, so I have a theory,” I said. “A hypothesis,” I corrected myself. For some reason I pay attention to the difference between these two terms. “When a child is born, it’s skull is not fully bone, there are certain places where the skull is soft, so that it can leave the womb more easily,” I began. I later found out that these soft spots are called fontanelles. “One of those places is the top of the head. In certain traditions it is believed that this very place is the entrance to one’s head, as the last part of the skull that remains vulnerable, open. So your hairstyles are to protect that place for some reason. I just don’t know what’s the reason. Is that about right?”
The monk looked at me seriously. “Yes, you’re right,” he admitted. “The idea is that knowledge enters our head through the shaved parts of our heads and doesn’t flee away through the top.”
“Yeah, makes sense,” I nodded my head.
“Also,” said another monk, “there’s a more esoteric meaning to it. When you fall into the river of sin, Krishna can come from the heavens, grab you by the hair, and pull you out of the river.”
It’s incredible how many stories we can make out of something as plain as science. Nature, biology, physics – they’re an immense inspiration for storytellers.
I started packing and took a few things out of my backpack. Among others, there was my yellow copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. The title didn’t slip the monks’ attention. “Do you know what dharma is? It’s Hindu term for one’s predestination, the road of life.”
I nodded my head. I was aware of that. I decided to make The Dharma Bums my travel journal a year earlier, during my trip through Europe. And likewise, Kerouac was a great inspiration not only for my travels, but also for my writing. Were all my journeys just a chain of events that led me to that temple? Picking this very book, making an impromptu decision to hitchhike to Zurich, meeting the monks, praying to female Buddha? Well, maybe. Or maybe I was colouring my vision to see what I wanted to see.
Before I left, the monks gave me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita – the ancient Hindu scripture in a beautiful edition. I thanked them for the gift, said my goodbyes, and went out. I had to walk all the way down to the centre of Zurich and find my Couchsurfing host for the night. I left the temple contemplating the striking similarities between Eastern and Western religions, the meaning behind their fairytale stories. If peoples of Earth created stories based on the same foundations, maybe there was some fundamental idea given to us by God? Or maybe it’s the Jungian collective unconscious, certain archetypes hardwired in our psyche?
I don’t know yet, and I doubt I ever will. I also doubt that a female Krishna celebration or a Christain mass will bring me closer to finding the answers. However, walking down the hill, I was happy to be alive – and that’s all that mattered in that moment.
Part V: Homecoming
I arrived at my Couchsurfing host’s after an hour of tiring walking, with my backpack stuffed with books and clothes. My clothes were dirty and my skin was sticky. I needed a bath, as soon as possible. My host came forward with a proposition:
“Do you like swimming?”
Of course I did, and still do. It was already dark outside, around 10 p.m. in the evening. I wasn’t sure if we should go for a swim now or in the morning, mostly because of the physical fatigue. I decided to toss a coin. Heads for tonight, tails for morning. It was tails.
We grabbed our towels and took a five-minute walk to a nearby river. Tossing a coin is a good idea when unsure. Internally, you actually do know what you really want. Happenstance showed that we were to go in the morning, which only showed me that, internally indeed, I wanted to go right now. Having left our stuff at the roots of a lonesome tree, we jumped into the river. I could barely see anything and the current was strong. The chilly waters of the river cleaned both my body and my soul from the barrenness of travel.
Thirty seconds passed and we got to the first way out. He asked me, “Wanna go to the next one?” Of course I did. When we got off to the bank, we walked to the place where we started, trembling. “Another one?” he asked. Hell yeah.
After a quick, cold shower we got dressed and walked back to his flat. I told him about my hitchhiking drivers, my journey, and, obviously, the Hare Krishna monks. He concluded that I’ve done more in one day in Zurich than he’d done throughout his whole life. I doubted it, but said nothing.
I was tired like hell and needed a break. He offered me to stay one more day at his place, but instead I bought a cheap bus ticket to Munich, my next destination, for the next day. After a good night’s sleep came a beautiful morning. I could see almost the entire city from his balcony, and it was breathtaking.
Clothes back on, a linen shirt and black jeans, along with my black bandana, backpack, banners in my hands, and my camera hanging on my chest. He said I looked like a real journalist. I’m not sure what a “real journalist” looks like, but I assume that’s exactly it.
The ticket prices for public transportation in Zurich are hideous. I paid five euros for a 10-minute drive. What a waste. At least the fountains in the city all have free drinking water, which I found out only that morning, after a long evening walk, craving for water.
On the bus I tried to read but found myself way too tired for that intellectual drudgery. We drove past Lake Bodensee, where we took a ferry, and then went past both Immenstaad and Friedrichshain. Because of traffic jams, it took some six or seven hours to get to Munich. Most of the time I was asleep, my head pushing against the window, doing my best not to get into physical contact with the lady sitting on my left. She wore Crocs. How crude.
In Munich, I grabbed a bite to eat, a kebab. At that point, I was planning to stay the night in Munich, regain my vital energy, and hitchhike back to Berlin the next morning. Still, I didn’t have a place to stay. In my mind, I played with the thought of sleeping at a nearby Hare Krishna temple, why not. I ate my kebab, it was slimy and I threw out half of it.
I dined at a kerb near a school of some kind. A man approached me, interested in my banners, and we talked about hitchhiking. He wanted to go on a trip too. I gave him a few tips, wished him good luck, and went away.
My body was weary and my head was throbbing. I experienced something I called “the traveller’s burnout.” I didn’t want to be on the road anymore, I didn’t want to go on any more adventures, meet any new people, see any more places. I just wanted to go home, lay in my bed, warm and safe. It no longer made me happy, so I saw no point in hitchhiking the next day.
Munich didn’t quite impress me, I didn’t do too much there. A little bit of walking around, taking pictures, reading, calling my friends and family, writing in my journal. I booked another cheap bus to Berlin, it was leaving around 10.30 p.m. that night.
Awaiting my bus, I sat in a bar near the Zentral Omnibus Station, and I started writing this very article, drinking beers and smoking. I arrived in Berlin around 6 o’clock, after 7,5 hours on the bus. I didn’t hitchhike all the way around Germany and Switzerland as I planned, but it wasn’t a defeat, it wasn’t cheating. I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Sometimes I do things to manifest something in my life, but there is no necessity. If I want to get back by bus, because I’m physically and financially exhausted, I just will. Maybe next time I will do something even more crazy, if I feel like it.